The World Health Organization (WHO) has set its sights on reducing salt in food products around the globe through new global benchmarks.

It suggests the benchmarks for sodium levels in more than 60 food categories will “help countries reduce salt intake and save lives”.

WHO said most people consume double its recommended 5g of daily salt intake, putting themselves at greater risk of heart disease and strokes that kill an estimated three million people each year.

Its new Global Sodium Benchmarks for Different Food Categories, published yesterday (5 May), is a guide for countries and the industry to reduce the sodium content in different categories of processed foods, the consumption of which is a “rapidly increasing source of sodium,” the WHO said.

The benchmarks target a wide range of categories of processed and packaged foods, which the WHO says significantly contribute to overly salty diets. These include processed and packaged bread, savoury snacks, meat products and cheese.

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Its guidelines suggest, for example, that potato crisps should contain a maximum of 500mgs of sodium per 100g serving, pies and pastries up to 120mgs and processed meats up to 360mgs.

"Reducing sodium content by reformulating processed foods is a proven strategy to reduce population sodium intake, particularly in places where consumption of processed foods is high. It can also prevent processed foods from becoming a major source of sodium in countries where consumption of these manufactured foods may be rapidly increasing," WHO said.

Geneva-headquartered WHO, a specialist agency of the United Nations responsible for international public health, is also keen to have harmonised global benchmarks, suggesting similar processed food products often contain different amounts of sodium in different countries.

Its benchmarks are intended to show countries how they can progressively cut their targets, based on their local food environments, and "encourage industry to lower the sodium content in processed foods accordingly, and advance toward the WHO goal of 30% reduction in global salt/sodium intake by 2025".

WHO director-general Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said: "Most people don't know how much sodium they consume, or the risks it poses. We need countries to establish policies to reduce salt intake and provide people with the information they need to make the right food choices. We also need the food and beverage industry to cut sodium levels in processed foods. WHO's new benchmarks give countries and industry a starting point to review and establish policies to transform the food environment and save lives."

WHO's initiative has the support of US consumer advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). Its co-founder Michael Jacobson said: "Excess salt in our diets, particularly from packaged foods and restaurant meals, promotes hyper-tension, heart attack, and stroke, contributing to in the order of 50,000 to 100,000 deaths each year in the United States.

"The World Health Organization estimates that approximately three million deaths per year globally are attributable to excess sodium. Preventing these needless deaths should be considered an urgent priority for public health officials in the United States and around the world.

"That's why the WHO's global benchmarks for sodium proposed today for more than 60 food categories are important, timely, and demand the attention of food company executives, health officials and food regulators in the US and abroad."

Jacobson said that the US Food and Drug Administration "should be embarrassed that it has not yet finalised its own voluntary sodium reduction guidelines, proposed in 2016 for more than 150 food categories".

And he suggested the food industry should "see the writing on the wall". He added: "Responsible manufacturers should act now to bring down sodium to much safer levels."

WHO points out that in the UK voluntary targets for food manufacturers to reformulate products decreased adult salt intake by approximately 15% between 2003 and 2011, indicating that target-setting across multiple food categories can achieve meaningful reductions in sodium consumption.

just-food asked UK industry body the Food and Drink Federation for its response to the WHO initiative but it declined to comment.

A spokesperson for fellow industry body FoodDrinkEurope said: "This is an important topic and we will discuss the content and recommendations of the WHO report with our members. Many companies in the European food and drink industry have been on a salt reformulation journey for many years, including through collaboration in national public-private salt reduction strategies, and with good success.

"This work continues and we are looking forward to engaging with policy-makers to continue to help bring down high levels of salt consumption to ensure good health."